anne boleyn

The case against accused witch Anne Boleyn

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Nov 14, 2018, 1:00 PM EST

Back in 1536, Henry VIII — he of the six wives — declared that he had been "bewitched" into marriage with his second wife Anne Boleyn. She’s been crowned Queen of England in 1533 after being courted for many years and refusing to be a mistress. In addition to accusations of adultery, Anne Boleyn was accused of witchcraft by many in the court (though that was never a formal charge). She was beheaded on Friday, May 19, 1536, in the grounds of Tower Green by a swordsman Henry had ordered from France, his one kindness to the woman he had once loved to distraction. Given our fascination with all things witchy, today we examine the case against Anne Boleyn, Queen of England.

Henry VIII had been married for many years to the Spanish Infanta Catherine of Aragon. She’d been unable to give him sons that lived, leaving Mary, the future Queen of England as the only child that survived to adulthood. As her fertile years waned, Henry began to despair. About that time he met Anne Boleyn, who had been educated in the court of France, and who had worked as a translator for Queen Claude there. Henry had had an earlier affair with Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn.

Though Anne was promised to another man, once Henry showed his interest, she was off limits. She had dark hair and eyes and was very thin, a look that wasn’t considered the standard of beauty at the time, but she was reportedly very compelling. Her manners and dress were French, and exotic to the English court, and she was witty and intelligent. Henry was smitten. So smitten, in fact, that he tried to get the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine so he could marry Anne. He began his pursuit in 1526, and though he tried his best, Anne refused to sleep with him, even with an offer of becoming his official mistress.

Anne resisted for years, while her influence grew within the court. She was approached by men of great standing to help gain them Henry’s favors. The king also gave her the hereditary title of Marquessate of Pembroke, making her noble enough to marry. No woman had ever been granted such a title. With no positive response from Rome and Anne’s influence, Henry decided to break from the Catholic Church, changing England’s religion forever. Anne reportedly helped convince Henry that he should be the head of the church and that the Pope’s power was far too wide-ranging. The new religion of the land allowed Henry to divorce Catherine, something the Catholic Church didn't. Anne is thought to have finally slept with Henry in 1532, shortly before they secretly married. Anne became pregnant shortly after, and a public wedding followed. He then had her crowned Queen consort, the last woman to be crowned on her own in English history.

Anne’s family profited from her rise, and soon she delivered a daughter, the future Elizabeth I of England. Her husband wasn’t happy, but he assumed that they’d have sons after that. Henry, who had been a devout Catholic all his life had just been excommunicated, and things were beginning to sour between the couple. Anne had had influence over Henry, and her power wasn’t considered appropriate for a wife. She had a miscarriage in 1534, but things were still sort of OK. Her court was glittering and expensive, and her bower full of a number of male friends. The court began to blame Anne for Henry’s missteps, however. It was easier, as she could be criticized and he, as the new head of the church, could not. 

In 1536, Catherine died, and there was no longer any barrier to Anne being accepted as queen…except the fact that she was widely hated by the populace and many men of the court. Anne was once again pregnant, but Henry was unhorsed in a jousting tournament and unconscious. It was dangerous for everyone involved as there was no male heir. It has been speculated that Henry received a brain injury that may have changed his temperament. Anne miscarried a son shortly after, and Henry began to think that this marriage hadn’t been a great idea. He also had a new mistress, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting named Jane Seymour, a quiet woman who didn’t challenge him the way Anne did. 

After the miscarriage, Henry declared that Anne had seduced him into marriage by “sortilege,” which means deception or spells. Jane was moved into the royal quarters, and Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s advisor (formerly Anne’s ally) began the campaign to discredit her. They had argued over where to spend the money seized from the Catholic clergy. 

In April, a musician named Mark Smeaton, a friend of Anne’s was arrested and tortured. He confessed to an affair with her, though historians believe that is unlikely to be true. Following Smeaton, a number of others were accused, including Henry Norris, who was reportedly paying court to her, according to a conversation that someone overheard. Then William Brereton and Sir Francis Weston were arrested, as well as her brother George Boleyn. The famous poet Sir Thomas Wyatt was arrested but then released, though the rest were eventually executed. Everyone arrested other than Smeaton denied the charges. Though the official charges didn’t state witchcraft, it was a large part of the campaign to discredit her. It was said that Anne had a sixth finger on one of her hands, and moles, otherwise known as "witch's marks," though that has not been proven. Anne declared her innocence in a final confession from prison, and despite a letter to her husband, she was executed with a single stroke. She was then buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula inside the Tower of London. 

Historian Alison Weir explains that witchcraft couldn’t be used as a way to legally take someone down in Henry's reign. She said in her book The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, "At that time witchcraft was not an indictable offense; it was not until 1542 that an act was passed under Henry VIII making it a secular crime, and it did not become a capital offense until 1563, under Elizabeth I.” Before that, there had to be actual evidence of witchcraft. Public opinion, however, could easily be swayed, and this time around, it was.

Part of the “evidence” against her was that the male child that she had miscarried was reportedly deformed. At the time, the birth of a deformed child was considered a sign of witchcraft. It’s also unclear if this rumor was contemporary, or if it was part of the slander against Anne that happened during Mary I’s reign. The same goes for the sixth finger accusation. The main beginning of the myth of Anne’s witchcraft, according to most historians (though some disagree) was Henry’s discussion of bewitchment. In later centuries, the more dramatic charges of witchcraft were written about by many authors. 

Again, Anne wasn’t formally charged with witchcraft, though there were a number of rumors that influenced the jury against her. It was also incumbent upon Henry to find a good explanation for his decision to change the entire religion of England for a woman. Telling people he was “bewitched” allowed him to deny that he’d made a rash decision for love. There may also have been resentment over her refusal to sleep with him without marriage for so long, and the fact that she was so vocal about her opinions. Of course, he would likely have felt guilty for what he’d done to the Catholic Church and to the friends who’d opposed his marriage. Combine that with the need to continue the new Tudor royal line his father Henry VII had fought for and won may have pushed him over the edge. As with so many women before Anne, the easiest way to discredit her was to call her a witch and a whore.

So, Anne Boleyn likely never had a single thing to do with witchcraft. The slander was part of Henry’s campaign to absolve himself of guilt. Some of it was created to discredit Elizabeth when her sister (and Catherine of Aragon’s daughter) Mary reigned over England. It was salacious though, and it stuck. 

No, Anne was not a witch. She was a victim of the accusation thousands of women have suffered under. Don’t like a lady? She’s a witch! Burn her! Still, on Witchy Wednesday, when we celebrate the witches we love, let’s also celebrate the lives of women who were accused of it to get them out of the way. 

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